The guy behind Gene Vincent’s long lived second career in the UK and The Prisoner himself gather an unlikely crew of the almost famous: lifelong hippie idealist, Woodstock opener and percussive folkie Richie Havens, the guy behind perennial Vegas Elvis classic “Polk salad Annie”, the loveable hooker from Escape From New York and the A Team’s Colonel Decker to stage a bizarre head film take on Othello.
Oh, and it’s some sort of religious allegory to boot.
So obscure that as a several decades long Havens fan, I’d never even heard of the damn thing, Catch My Soul was apparently poorly covered on release before vanishing into a 40 year black hole that left it as the stuff of film legend (as it were). The liner notes claim even “accepted” film historians questioned the film’s very existence or completion, and all things considered, it’s believable enough. In those heady days, the haze of pot smoke and happy trails threw a lot of things into question…
Shot on an Indian burial ground in Santa Fe where a staged fire nearly killed a crew member with a drunken director who literally had to call shots while near-passed out on the ground (!) and a producer who “got religion” after a completed edit was assembled and decided to shoot extra inserted footage to reflect his newfound beliefs. In other words, at least on paper, it was a fucking mess.
Lance LeGault plays Iago…or is that the devil? to Havens’ Othello…or is Havens the “preacher man” of LeGault’s songs whose “soul he’s gonna catch”? Hubley is a particularly naive, nun-like Desdemona, Tyrell a rather sinister Emilia, “the devil’s old lady, one of the tribe of hell…we gonna have a black mass on Othello’s black ass…and Desdemona’s white one as well!”
Yep, it’s the early to mid 70’s, alright.
In terms of pure performance, LeGault does a convincing job as satan…er, Iago and while her singing leaves much to be desired, Tyrell offers a decent hippie-style vamp. While Havens is something of an inexperienced actor to say the least, he still manages to throw himself into the affair, coming across as far more believable in jealous agony than Hubley’s one note virgin purity (which just leaves her seeming clueless and lost).
Songwriter for the piece Tony Joe White doesn’t get as much to do as Othello’s right hand man Cassio, but seems likeable enough during his brief time onscreen, and there are some strong visuals early in the film that do its cinematographer and director credit.
There’s also an especially strong soundtrack, which features such highlights as Richie Havens taking on a song I knew best from Mylon LeFevre’s excellent Live Forever, “working on a building”, before offering more familiar takes on “follow” and “run shaker life”. White also performs some of his own material such as “backwoods preacher man”, and that certainly helps matters. But that’s not the whole story, or the entire reason that this oddity actually works on more than the most superficial of levels.
Whatever the initial intent, this is far more of a Jesus Christ Superstar meets Godspell sort of Jesus Freak happening than it ever was Shakespeare, with some believable malice in LeGault’s growling lyrics and hunched swagger and Tyrell’s especially sinister sultriness contrasted with the good nature and pure hearts of Havens and Hubley (White serving as a sort of Greek chorus throughout).
In fact, it’s only in the second half of the film that things get a bit more “faithful” to old Will’s ostensible source material, and that’s exactly where things begin to drag and fall apart.
For all the talk by Fries and in the liner notes of how much of a “mistake” it was to follow writer/executive producer Jack Good (and to hear it told, Patrick McGoohan)’s loftier, more spiritually oriented inclinations, the simple fact is that is exactly what makes Catch My Soul work so well as it does, at least in its more boisterous, far less Shakespearean first half.
In fact, had they followed Good (and McGoohan)’s gut feelings further, we may have had a far less disjointed film, or at least one that remained consistent throughout, as opposed to one that starts off with surprising intensity before suddenly sinking like a stone into listlessness and ennui for the remainder of the running time.
A huge devotee of Woodstock and the idealism it alludes to from my very first wide eyed viewing of the film on public television back in the (very) early 80’s, I was fortunate enough to meet Havens at a bizarre free concert at a seldom used public library bandshell a few years before his passing. I am pleased to report that the intervening decades had in no way diminished the man’s idealism, philosophy or outlook on life and humanity.
While most hippie ideals were shaken by Manson, Altamont and Watergate, with once crusading firebrands morphing into self absorbed, coke snorting Me Generation singer songwriters, disco fans and eventually totally switching to the darkside to become uptight conservative money-grubbing yuppies, Havens was the all too rare exception: still wandering about in kaftan and sandals, more mellow than a fellow New Yorker could ever dream of being, railing against government and societal evils while still managing to focus firmly on an optimistic assurance in human potential, that we can still change an increasingly evil world for the better. And as such, his gentle voice is much missed.
There are a few extras as well: one with producer Charles Fries and associate producer Huw Davies about the making of the film (Fries is cautious and still shows a measure of optimism, Davies is hilariously blunt about the film, the personalities involved and their various quirks and ubiquitious drug use), another with composer/costar Tony Joe White (which gets into the finer points of the party scene and its origins) and finally one with late cinematographer Conrad Hall’s daughter Naia about his career as a whole.
So let’s sum it up. What exactly is Catch My Soul in the end?
Despite the mess it may sound like on paper, there’s a very straightforward answer: it’s a hippie revival with intense Jesus Freak leanings, filled with dramatic, powerful music and intense performances to drive home its neo-Jesus Christ Superstar message/warnings.
In point of fact, it’s the best thing we’ve seen from Etiquette Pictures by far, and I’d be willing to bet they’ll have a hard time topping this one for some time to come.